The forces driv­ing demo­cratic re­ces­sion

Democ­racy, it turns out, is dif­fi­cult to pro­mote at the end of a gun.

Financial Nigeria Magazine - - Contents - By Jay Ogilvy

Lib­eral democ­racy is in re­treat across the globe. Fol­low­ing decades of ex­pan­sion since the 1950s, the spread of democ­racy hit a wall in the new millennium. Free­dom House, us­ing care­fully crafted met­rics, has mea­sured a de­cline in democ­racy and free­dom world­wide. Def­i­ni­tions are im­por­tant: Does the fact of elec­tions, even where the out­come is au­to­crat­i­cally de­ter­mined, qual­ify a coun­try as a democ­racy? By most mea­sures and def­i­ni­tions, there are now about 25 fewer demo­cratic coun­tries than there were at the turn of the millennium. Found­ing co-ed­i­tor of the Jour­nal of

Democ­racy Larry Di­a­mond wrote a 2015 pa­per, "Fac­ing up to the Demo­cratic Re­ces­sion." Di­a­mond asks, rea­son­ably enough, "Why have free­dom and democ­racy been re­gress­ing in many coun­tries? The most im­por­tant and per­va­sive an­swer is, in brief, bad gov­er­nance." But this tells us very lit­tle. How and why has gov­er­nance been so bad?

Di­a­mond's Stan­ford col­league, Fran­cis Fukuyama was once so con­fi­dent that democ­racy had defini­tively de­feated its two main ri­vals, fas­cism and com­mu­nism, that he fa­mously stuck his neck out claim­ing "the end of his­tory." This year, 2017, Fukuyama stated in an in­ter­view with Ed­ward Luce, au­thor of the just pub­lished book, The Re­treat of Western Lib­er­al­ism,

"Ev­ery­thing I've been work­ing on for the past year sud­denly feels triv­ial. The only topic I can think about is the fu­ture of lib­eral democ­racy."

Fukuyama fears that the global demo­cratic re­ces­sion may turn into a global demo­cratic de­pres­sion.

There are a num­ber of rea­sons, not just one, for the re­cent demo­cratic re­ces­sion. With Luce's help, I'll enu­mer­ate a few, but to­ward the end, I'll take is­sue with Luce and oth­ers re­gard­ing the in­flu­ence of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence tech­nolo­gies on the fu­ture of work, em­ploy­ment and pol­i­tics.

Glob­al­iza­tion, Im­mi­gra­tion, Pop­ulism and In­equal­ity

As Luce and oth­ers have noted, these four phe­nom­ena are in­ter­re­lated. Part of glob­al­iza­tion is about trade, but when peo­ple as well as goods cross bor­ders, whether as trav­el­ers or refugees, then lives are touched and cus­toms chal­lenged. As is clear from both Brexit and Don­ald Trump's vic­tory, part of the pres­sure to­ward pop­ulism comes from lower- and mid­dlein­come, less ed­u­cated peo­ple who feel their lives and jobs are threat­ened by im­mi­grants and low-wage work­ers in other coun­tries. To re­peat my­self yet again, for the rich, the world is their oys­ter; for the poor, the world is their com­peti­tor.

Hil­lary Clin­ton may well have lost the elec­tion as a re­sult of her use of a sin­gle word: de­plorables. In Eng­land, they call them "the left-be­hinds," a phrase that fig­ured cen­trally in a col­umn not about Eng­land but about Is­lam and the postColo­nial legacy in Asia. When the gap be­tween rich and poor yawns wide, when the mid­dle class gets hol­lowed out, when eco­nomic in­se­cu­rity strains the so­cial con­tract, then pop­ulists call for a strong­man to stand up to the cor­rupt elite, and democ­racy suf­fers. Luce quotes Amer­i­can so­ci­ol­o­gist Bar­ring­ton Moore: "No bour­geoisie, no democ­racy."

Though Luce doesn't lump them to­gether as I do here, he cap­tures the pace of change over re­cent decades in three dif­fer­ent five­fold in­creases: "Since 1970, Asia's per­capita in­comes have in­creased five­fold." "The as­set value of the world's lead­ing bil­lion­aires has risen five­fold since 1988." "Fol­low­ing China's WTO ac­ces­sion in 2001, Amer­ica's trade deficit with China has leapt al­most five­fold." These three five­fold in­creases are not un­re­lated.

While the four phe­nom­ena un­der this sub­ti­tle – glob­al­iza­tion, im­mi­gra­tion, pop­ulism and in­equal­ity – are tightly in­ter­re­lated in self-re­in­forc­ing feed­back loops, there are other fac­tors be­hind the demo­cratic re­ces­sion that can be iden­ti­fied more dis­cretely.

The Iraq War and Its Legacy

Luce doesn't mince words: "It is hard to over­state the dam­age the Iraq War did to Amer­ica's global soft power – and to the cred­i­bil­ity of the West's demo­cratic mis­sion."

And the dam­age con­tin­ues: "[I]n the eyes of the Is­lamists, Trump has sim­ply dropped the pre­tense. The West was al­ways at war with Is­lam. Trump has re­moved the mask. At a moment when ISIS is on the mil­i­tary re­treat in Iraq and Syria, Trump has made their drive for fresh re­cruits much eas­ier."

Democ­racy, it turns out, is dif­fi­cult to pro­mote at the end of a gun.

China and the Eco­nomic Re­ces­sion

These two phe­nom­ena are im­por­tantly linked pre­cisely to the ex­tent that un­demo­cratic China did not suf­fer eco­nom­i­cally nearly as much as the world's democ­ra­cies. Is there a les­son here for coun­tries in Africa, where none qual­ify as ef­fec­tively func­tion­ing democ­ra­cies and many are re­ceiv­ing aid and in­vest­ment from China?

Luce quotes An­drew Nathan, a lead­ing China-watcher: "By demon­strat­ing that ad­vanced mod­ern­iza­tion can be com­bined with au­thor­i­tar­ian rule, the Chi­nese regime has given hope to au­thor­i­tar­ian rulers ev­ery­where."

So, to briefly sum­ma­rize Luce be­fore tak­ing is­sue with what he has to say about tech­nol­ogy, all of these fac­tors, not just one, have come to­gether to cre­ate a kind of per­fect storm for democ­racy: glob­al­iza­tion, im­mi­gra­tion, pop­ulism, in­equal­ity, the Iraq War and its legacy, China, and the eco­nomic re­ces­sion. These are some of the rea­sons for the "bad gov­er­nance" that Di­a­mond in­vokes.

The Threat of Tech­no­log­i­cal Un­em­ploy­ment

Luce is hardly alone in not­ing that new tech­nolo­gies, par­tic­u­larly ro­bots with ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence (AI), pose a greater threat to low-skilled work­ers than do for­eign­ers. "The lat­ter-day ef­fects of glob­al­iza­tion have shaken Western sol­i­dar­ity. The fu­ture of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence poses chal­lenges that are likely to be or­ders of mag­ni­tude greater."

Or­ders of mag­ni­tude greater? Granted, the new­est wave of au­to­ma­tion poses a threat to em­ploy­ment in ways that ear­lier tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances did not, but ac­cu­rately es­ti­mat­ing the scale of the threat is im­por­tant. Why? Be­cause of the con­nec­tion be­tween (un)em­ploy­ment and pop­ulism:

“Europe and Amer­ica's pop­ulist right wants to turn the clock back to the days when men were men and the West ruled. It is pre­pared to sac­ri­fice the gains of glob­al­iza­tion – and risk con­flict with China

– to pro­tect jobs that have al­ready van­ished. Pop­ulists have lit­tle to say about au­to­ma­tion, though it is a far larger threat to peo­ple's jobs than trade."

When I say that Luce is not alone in his fear of what ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence can do to elim­i­nate jobs, I'm think­ing not only about fig­ures like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawk­ing, who have voiced their fears about AI, but also the fas­ci­nat­ing and very pop­u­lar work of Yu­val Noah Harari, au­thor of the best-seller, Sapi­ens: A Brief His­tory of Hu­mankind, and, just re­cently, Homo Deus: A Brief His­tory of To­mor­row.

Like Luce, Musk and Hawk­ing, Harari is alarmed at the prospect of tech­no­log­i­cally caused un­em­ploy­ment. But Harari's ra­tio­nale is even more rad­i­cal. Tak­ing the very long view from 70,000 years ago in his first book, in his lat­est vol­ume he con­tem­plates a not-too-dis­tant fu­ture fea­tur­ing noth­ing less than the ob­so­les­cence of hu­man­ity as we know it.

The stakes for pol­i­tics are high: "When ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence re­veal their full po­ten­tial, lib­er­al­ism, democ­racy and free mar­kets might be­come as ob­so­lete as flint knives, tape cas­settes, Is­lam and com­mu­nism."

Harari's books are thought-pro­vok­ing. No won­der they are pop­u­lar. The writ­ing is witty and of­ten per­cep­tive. But like Luce, I think he se­ri­ously over­es­ti­mates the po­ten­tial of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and there­fore also over­es­ti­mates the de­gree of its threat to democ­racy.

Harari draws on a par­tic­u­lar strand of techno-utopian post-hu­man­ist lit­er­a­ture that is more con­tro­ver­sial than he makes it sound. Ac­cord­ing to some but hardly all re­searchers in Silicon Val­ley, there is cer­tainly noth­ing like a soul in­side the brain. Not even a mind. Not even a self. Ac­cord­ing to some, but hardly all re­searchers, we are noth­ing but stacks of al­go­rithms run­ning on wet­ware rather than silicon. Harari buys into the com­pu­ta­tional metaphor for how the brain works, but the com­pu­ta­tional metaphor is con­tested by many, from philoso­phers like Hu­bert Drey­fus and John Searle to an­thro­pol­o­gists like Terrence Dea­con and poly­math ge­nius in­ven­tor of vir­tual re­al­ity Jaron Lanier, whose book You

Are Not a Gad­get states its the­sis in its ti­tle. The de­bate be­tween hu­man­ists and posthu­man­ists is pro­found. It is ul­ti­mately about what it is to be a hu­man be­ing. Is there some­thing spe­cial about us? If not a soul, then some­thing else? What dif­fer­en­ti­ates us from other an­i­mals? Or from our com­put­ers?

An­swers to such ques­tions have po­lit­i­cal im­port be­cause they touch on is­sues of hu­man dig­nity and hu­man rights, and/or the rights of an­i­mals. Given his ea­ger­ness to de­mys­tify hu­man­ism, it's not sur­pris­ing that Harari is much pre­oc­cu­pied with the suf­fer­ing of farm an­i­mals.

But Harari presents us with too stark a choice when it comes to our un­der­stand­ing of our­selves as hu­man be­ings: Ei­ther we buy into the new re­li­gion of hu­man­ism and use it to stoke the old re­li­gious fires, OR we ac­cept a sci­en­tific ma­te­ri­al­ism that robs the world of all tran­scen­dent pur­pose and mean­ing.

An Al­ter­nate Path?

But there is a third way. The sci­ence of emer­gent sys­tems, par­tic­u­larly Dea­con's big book, In­com­plete Na­ture: How Mind

Emerged from Mat­ter, of­fers an up-fromthe-bot­tom, per­fectly nat­u­ral­is­tic ac­count of how pur­pose and mean­ing come to be in a uni­verse that, prior to the emer­gence of life, was ut­terly with­out pur­pose.

Again, why is this such a big deal, and there­fore why are the ques­tions raised by Harari so im­por­tant? Think of this third

It is hard to over­state the dam­age the Iraq War did to Amer­ica's global soft power – and to the cred­i­bil­ity of the West's demo­cratic mis­sion.

path of emer­gence as a philo­soph­i­cally pro­found and sci­en­tif­i­cally re­spectable re­sponse to the deep anx­i­eties of the "de­plorables" and "left-be­hinds." Their old time re­li­gion is un­der siege in the new world. They are sus­pi­cious of sci­ence and evo­lu­tion. They have a ba­sic in­tu­ition that there is some­thing wrong with the sci­en­tific and god­less val­ues of the elites, and in an im­por­tant sense they are right. The ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence-driven, posthu­man­ist fu­ture pro­moted by Ray Kurzweil and oth­ers is a cold, cold place.

Harari crit­i­cizes thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker who on the one hand em­brace the cold­ness of the com­pu­ta­tional metaphor for mind but on the other pre­serve a hu­man­is­tic warmth by per­form­ing, "breath­tak­ing in­tel­lec­tual som­er­saults that mirac­u­lously land them back in the eigh­teenth cen­tury [with] … Locke, Rousseau and Jef­fer­son."

“How­ever once the hereti­cal sci­en­tific in­sights are trans­lated into ev­ery­day tech­nol­ogy, rou­tine ac­tiv­i­ties and eco­nomic struc­tures, it will be­come in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to sus­tain this dou­ble-game, and we – or our heirs – will prob­a­bly re­quire a brand-new pack­age of re­li­gious be­liefs and po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions."

High stakes in­deed. We owe Harari a debt for draw­ing out the po­ten­tial po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence tech­nol­ogy. For­tu­nately for most of us, AI is not as smart as Harari makes it sound. Fast, yes. Mas­sively ca­pa­cious, for sure. But as Searle and Dea­con show in dif­fer­ent but de­fin­i­tive ways, the "in­tel­li­gence" achieved by AI is some­thing quite other than hu­man in­tel­li­gence. We may not be ob­so­lete all that soon. So our cur­rent pack­age of re­li­gious be­liefs and po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions may last us longer than Luce or Harari would have us be­lieve.

US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump

The land­mark statue of late Iraqi Pres­i­dent Sad­dam Hus­sein be­ing pulled down in Bagh­dad in April 2003

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